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Bubble City: Chapter 5
Stare. Stare. Tick. Tick. Ancient art hung on the walls. Ancient books
lined the shelves. The light fixtures looked like they hadn’t been
dusted since Carter urged Americans to save electricity. “So, how are
things at the new offices?” a wisened-looking old man sitting at the
other end of the table asked. “Oh, fine, Grandpa,” Jason replied.
“What is it you guys do again? Videos of models doing backflips?”
“No,” Jason said with a sigh. “We’re a news site.” “You mean like the
New York Times?” “Kind of, except we don’t write the news, we just try
to find bits of it for you.” “How do you do that?” “Well, we look at
everything people on the Internet are reading and talking about and
then we try to pick out which of those people are most like you and
tell you about the stories they like at the moment.” “I see,” the old
man said. “I see.”
“So how well does it work?” “Well, uh, not so great, actually. That’s
what I’ve been investigating lately.” “What do you mean?” “Well, it
seems like the site is recommending everyone the same inane stuff,
like stupid videos and that sort of thing.” “Ah, yes. Well, hate to
say I told you so, but this is just like that article i was reading
in—what was it?Foreign Affairs?—predicted.” “What do you mean?”
“It said that in the future we’d have this personal newspaper all you
tech wizards have been promising us, only it’d recommend us the same
stupid crap (pardon my language) that average people have been
enjoying for centuries.”
“Really?” Jason asked, suspicious. “Do you happen to have the
article?” “Oh yes, it’s right over—” the old man stood up to get it
but then remembered he had broken his knee, the ostensible reason for
Jason’s visit, and thought better of it. “It’s right over there—could
you fetch it for me?” “Oh, of course,” Jason said. He pulled it down
and flipped through it.
It was by the former editor of the New York Times and made the usual
viritolic case for trusting human editors over some algorithm based on
the whims of random people. And somehow it found a way to compare news
recommenders to street vomit, which Jason had to admit was a
depressingly common sight in San Francisco. Jason briefly wondered if
the old media was using the backdoor to prop up their dying business
models, but quickly decided nobody at those companies was clued-in
enough to know what a backdoor was.
“Yes, yes, I’ve heard all this, Grandfather, but I just don’t buy it.”
“Oh, what’s your explanation? Just need to improve the technology, eh?
Because I’ve heard that one more than a few times.” “No, I think
someone is trying to manipulate the results.” “What? Oh, god, you
young people are always jumping to conspiracy theories. Why can’t you
just admit your precious little system doesn’t work? Why do you have
to create some shadowy cabal of people trying to control the news.”
Jason just sighed. “Let’s talk about something else.”
“What’s your shirt say? Daring Fireball? What’s that?”
Wayne quickly found that, although Google didn’t want their name on
the check or the web site, they were most accommodating in other
matters. They gave him a nice little office inside the Googleplex, let
him play with all the fancy equipment and company perks (free laundry,
free swimming pool, free video games), and had a stream of people
coming by to chat him up and suggest new ideas for promoting NNA.
He was a bit wary of getting so close to someone he had so often
railed against, but he thought that perhaps this was his reward for
his ceaseless railing. Anyway, there were a lot of other evils out
there to fight, and if working with Google made him more effective at
fighting those, wasn’t it, on balance, a good thing? And the free food
was nice too.
On the plane back, Jason tried to figure out the meaning of the
S-boxes. He spent the first couple hours tracing the code, trying to
understand how it worked and how the S-boxes were used, before finally
giving up in frustration. It was just too complicated.
So, being a programmer, he decided to try a more automated approach.
First, he took NNA and replaced its random number generating system
with a function that always returned the number 17 (17 was a pretty
random number, right?). Then he made a copy in which the only thing he
changed was the S-boxes. He then wrote a program to generate random
input files for the recommender. It fed the same file to both
recommenders — the normal one and the one with the modified S-boxes
— and it looked at the output to see if there were any differences.
Since he’d taken all the randomness out of the algorithm, any
difference in output had to be due to the one thing that had changed:
the S-boxes. In other words, the program would search for inputs that
triggered the S-boxes.
There was just one problem: there were a lot of possible inputs. For
the rest of the plane ride, his program tried thousands and thousands
of inputs, but none of them showed any difference. When the plane
landed, he slipped his laptop in his bag and let it keep crunching,
but he knew he’d have to try a different tack.
Wayne Darnus told everyone who would listen that he had invented NNA,
but as far as Jason could tell, he was using invented in the most
loosest of senses. Digging back through the changelog on the NNA
source code, which was provided for free to all from a project on
SourceForge, he found the code was originally written by some
programmer at Yahoo, back when Yahoo had real programmers. Getting a
name was near impossible — Yahoo had apparently insisted that all its
programmers contribute under the name “A Yahoo!” Some boneheaded
corporate consistency policy, no doubt.
But the author must have given up his identitysomewhere. Then it
hit him: mailing lists. No programmer worth their salt could give up a
good mailing list flamewar. Whoever wrote NNA must have shown up on a
mailing list once or twice to defend it. Finding him would be easy:
all Jason had to do was read through ten or twenty thousand messages
arguing about the minutiae of NNA’s design principles.
After trawling through interminable debates in mailing list archives,
for what felt like days, Jason finally found a post from a man who’s
patronizingly knowledgeable tone unmistakably indicated that he was the
one who wrote it all. And the message was posted from home, so his
computer had no qualms about signing his name. There it was in black
and white, the man who had started it all: Dan Miller.
Dan Miller was a rather elusive party. He had no website or home page
and despite NNA’s incredible popularity, he’d apparently never been
interviewed by the press. (Wayne had been interviewed endlessly, of
course. Whenever someone neglected to include him in their
history books, he complained about their lack of commitment to
historical accuracy on his vlogcast.) Jason wasn’t too surprised,
though. Finding MIller hadn’t been easy, and he hadn’t known many
journalists who were willing to do much work to get a technology
Miller’s entry in the Yahoo corporate directory had long since gone
stale — he’d left years ago — and emails to his personal account
bounced with the message “Mailbox full.” — overflowing with spam,
He just couldn’t get a handle on this guy. So he called Eric. “Oh,
yeah, Miller. Wow, there’s a name I hadn’t heard in a long time. So
you think he might be your source into cracking this NNA thing?”
“Seems like it’s worth a shot,” Jason replied. “Yeah, I suppose it
does. Alright, then, well, I guess I’ll look this up for you. What are
we searching for? OK, here we go: Daniel Miller, last known employer
Yahoo. Uhhh, OK, he lives in Mill Valley, I’ll email you his address.”
“Wow, Eric, that’s incredible. Thanks so much.” “No trouble; it’s
always nice to have an excuse to use these skills.”
Marin County wasn’t exactly known for its comprehensive public
transport system, so Jason hopped a cab, which deposited him someplace
random in the middle of a hillside. He climbed around for a while
looking for the house he knew must be nestled in it somewhere, before
finally locating the place. He navigated his way to the entrance, then
knocked politely on the door.
He wondered how a software developer could live in a place like this
— isolated from the rest of the Valley, away from the buzz and
excitement of the industry. But then again, he wondered how a software
developer could live without having a website. Maybe Miller wasn’t
much of a software developer.
A man in a beard who looked to be about in his late fifties answered the
door. “Hello?” he said, apparently unaccustomed to receiving visitors.
“Dan Miller?” “Yup. “Hey there, I was looking into NNA’s source code
and I have a few questions. I know you probably hate to be bugged
about software you wrote over a decade ago, but I came all the way out
here and I’d really appreciate just a bit of your time to answer just
a question or two about NNA.”
Miller smiled knowingly and gave Jason a long, piercing gaze. “ah,
yes,” he said at last. “I’ve been expecting you.”
Tomorrow:Chapter Six
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November  6, 2007